THIS is a crucial day in the recent history of Celtic, and Neil Lennon knows it.
His side have to start making up ground on Rangers, and quickly. The Celtic fans, meanwhile, must start to take heed of repeated requests to refrain from the type of “illicit chanting” which has already placed the club in the dock with Uefa. The Scottish Premier League is also now investigating claims of offensive singing at Celtic Park.
Lennon’s team trail Rangers by 12 points. His central defensive options have been stripped away to the extent that he quipped yesterday about being forced to consider Billy McNeill for today’s return to Inverness.
Lennon, therefore, could well do without the added responsibility of monitoring the Celtic songbook. However, having set out a message via the club’s official website on Thursday, the manager yesterday underlined just how vital it is that the fans resist from any offensive chanting, both today, when his side take on Inverness Caledonian Thistle in an always-problematic fixture, and in the future.
This was Lennon’s own awkward assignment. He is idolised by the support, particularly the section known as the Green Brigade. He has spoken himself about how they helped pull him through the trauma of last season, when they stood by him by proclaiming that “we are all Neil Lennon”.
Now it might seem as though he is turning on his own, although, as he himself pointed out, his loyalty is to Celtic FC. This, he hoped, is how the Celtic fans should see it too.
“I do think the guys in the north stand have made a difference,” he said, later making the point that even during the “halcyon days” of Martin O’Neill there were times “when the atmosphere wasn’t what it could have been”.
After delivering a typically passionate monologue when asked to address the issue of pro-IRA songs creeping back into vogue, the manager stressed he was not a “traitor” to the cause.
The cause both he and the Green Brigade should be most concerned with is the Celtic cause. And the club’s welfare has been put at risk of late as troubles have been encountered both on and off the park.
“I know we are touching on a very delicate subject here,” he said. “But I’ve made my feelings quite clear on the singing. I don’t want to get into any political debate in any way.”
That it has been left to Lennon to step back into the argument must dismay him to a degree. He spent most of last season in the eye of a storm. But as a figurehead of Celtic, he knows he has to address it – and he knows he has to acknowledge the dark truth that Celtic fans can go beyond the pale, and have done so in the recent past.
Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, was forced to condemn pro-IRA singing heard during a recent game against Hearts at Tynecastle. These incidents are blackening the name of the Green Brigade, an otherwise welcome band of brothers who have been known to brighten up many a dreary day at Parkhead.
Lennon was careful to note their positive contribution to the big-game atmosphere. He offered to meet the group, or at least some of their representatives. “I want to get their views and also put our views across,” he said. “I made a statement yesterday and I am just reinforcing that. I will sit down and speak to these guys privately.
“I’m the manager of the football club and I don’t want the reputation of the club tarnished. These guys [the Green Brigade] create a great atmosphere and a great colour, but there is a minority in there who are damaging the reputation of the club.
“All I am saying to them is, please stop, because they have done so much good, they have brought so much colour to the stadium in the last year and a half. But we can’t be seen in a bad light in terms of offensive singing.
“There are lines you cannot cross, and I think they are being crossed by the minority. I think the majority of the Celtic support want to be able to come to the stadium and enjoy their day out.”
There is a fear that the recent investigations by Uefa, who cited “illicit chanting” at a recent Europa League game against Rennes, and also the Scottish Premier League, who have been made alert to offensive chanting by Celtic fans, will see the ‘defiant’ button pressed by the minority who have succeeded in ensuring such scrutiny being placed on the club.
Rather than resist from such activities they might become emboldened due to the recent coverage.
The urge to sing these contentious songs is usually stronger at away games, which tend also to be covered live by either Sky or ESPN. Today it is the latter station which will be broadcasting the action from Inverness. Lennon’s players let themselves down on their last trip to the Highlands capital.
It’s hard to argue with the argument that the 3-2 defeat in May was where the championship was lost last season, despite there being three games still to play.
Kris Commons even admitted yesterday that the players knew as they walked from the park on that bright evening in early summer that the title had as good as gone.
But football is always likely to throw up such shock results. Even top players are prone to errors. It is why the game is so loved. Not so forgivable is the glorification of terrorism, however.
“The problem is, sometimes with these traditional songs, there are little add-ons which can be offensive to a majority of people in this country, and elsewhere,” said Lennon.
“I think the fans know themselves. We have asked them not to bring that to the stadium, or to any other stadium, and I am asking them again now to cut it out. But, certainly, sing the songs that we all love.”
With direct reference to today’s fixture, which kicks-off at 12.30pm, he added: “I would ask them to go to Inverness, and sing about the team, and sing their songs, but leave the offensive singing at the turnstiles.”
Lennon is aware that there is no margin for error on either side of the advertising boards.